Quinton Willms, who has loved rugby since he first hit the turf as an eighth-grader, realizes how fortunate he is to be a major part of a new and much improved era in rugby at Western Washington University as a freshman.
But if not for the total devotion displayed by senior team leaders Matt Jensen and Robert Boenish - both fifth-year players who discovered rugby as freshmen - the Vikings might not be headed for a return to the National 7s Tournament, now in its second year.
Rugby is still a club sport at Western. But the Vikings' new director of rugby, Paul Horne of Bellingham, and four other men with extensive rugby experience not only are working toward achieving varsity status for their athletes, but also creating a national power.
How good are the Division II Viking 7s, for whom Adam Roberts is head coach, as they head into the 24-team national competition on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, at Texas A&M against a raft of mostly Division I colleges and universities?
Good enough to have gained victories over the University of Washington, Washington State, the University of Oregon and Oregon State.
However, the Vikings - an at-large national tournament selection - aren't good enough to call themselves best in the Northwest. Division II rival Central Washington, last year's national runner-up, handed WWU its only two losses in 11 games across two autumn 7s tournaments.
College rugby, which is not administered by the NCAA but rather by USA Rugby, consists of 7s competition in the fall and the regular 15-man sides in the winter and spring.
"The 7s games are 14 minutes long (on the clock, which includes many time stoppages like football), but those are the longest 14 minutes of our lives," said Jensen, the team captain, while referring to the intense, rugged nature of the sport at the highest collegiate level.
Jensen knows what he's taking about. In his senior year, he was fifth for Shorewood High at Class 4A state in wrestling, where a two-minute third period can seem like an eternity.
"It's a relief to make nationals," said Jensen. "We're second best this 7s season in a very good rugby district. Central sets a high bar."
Willms is looking forward to making Western even better.
"It's great to see the progress. Competitive rugby at Western has just taken off," he said. "It's great to be a part of."
Willms has impressed Jensen, to say the least.
"Quinton is a lot better than I was at his stage as a freshman," said Jensen, who earned an invitation to the All-American Rugby Camp in Houston in the offseason.
Boenish, who was a three-sport standout at South Whidbey High, thought he might become a football letterman at Western, but the university abruptly dropped the sport during his freshman year. Instead, he followed friends into rugby and couldn't be more grateful.
"I just loved rugby," said Boenish, who eventually studied and played rugby overseas. "It was like taking a dog to a dog park. I didn't know what I was doing, but I had an absolute blast."
Rugby also became immediately special for Jensen as a freshman, since his brother, Brian, introduced him to the sport and played one year with before Brian graduated.
"It's huge, what we're doing," said Boenish. "We've been working so hard and we're totally committed to rugby. What other (club team) does two-a-days practice except for men's crew?"
Jensen and Boenish were key players on Western's first national 7s team, which finished 13th last year and split four games, with wins over Division I Wisconsin and North Carolina State and losses to St. Mary's and Miami of Ohio. They would love to win their four-team pool - they face San Diego State, Bowling Green and Davenport at College Station, Texas - and get a crack at playing against the likes of Cal and St. Mary's, which are major league in college rugby circles.
Their only regret is that, unlike Willms, they won't get to play multiple years on a new multi-purpose field being developed near the Western softball diamond.
The players noted that only 15 of the 30 players in the fall 7s program could make the traveling squad.
"All 30 guys who came to practice so faithfully deserved to go," said Jensen. "Some of them are still helping (the 15-man travel squad) in practice. We have 58 players signed up for the 15s season."
Horne, a 62-year-old former Canadian national coach, left a position as forwards coach at the University of British Columbia in order to take the new director of rugby post at Western. He is also head coach of the spring 15s team.
A native of Canada, Horne has been continually involved in rugby as either player, coach or administrator since he discovered the sport as a 21-year-old at Western. He and dozens of other diehards have helped make Whatcom County a rugby hotbed with the Chuckanut Bay adult and youth programs.
"I'm ecstatic to be part of this," said Horne, who has "really raised the bar for us," as Jensen put it.
Willms, who was a high school standout in White Rock, B.C., was "our No. 1 recruit," said Horne, who has taught for 35 years and is an elementary school physical education specialist for Bellingham Public Schools.
Willms' high school coach, Adam Roberts, guides the Western 7s and will work closely with Horne on the spring 15s team. Horne coached Roberts as a Canadian high school standout. Others who play key roles with the Western program are assistant coach Colin Campbell, program manager Jeff Lombard (who managed a U.S. World Cup team 25 years ago) and director of rugby alumni Gerry Henson (who was "Mr. Rugby" at Western about four decades ago). Henson is gratified to see his son, Louis, on the travel team.
"Adam did a survey of all the Western rugby players and the survey showed they wanted to move up (to varsity sport status)," said Horne. "We're getting a lot of financial help from our alumni. What we're doing, working toward what we call Olympic sport status, is creating creditability at Western."
Horne notes that most of Western's rugby players are strong athletes who played other sports in high school. Most of them came to college with little or no rugby experience, but Horne hopes that will change with an extensive recruiting program, beginning in the spring.
"Adam Roberts pestered me and hounded me in a great way into coming to Western for rugby," Horne said.
As always, the camaraderie and social aspects of rugby make a huge difference for everyone.
"I remember when I came to Western (after lettering in football at Boise State and Olympic Community College for one year at each), the rugby guys took me to the Iron Bull (in Bellingham)," Horne said with a laugh. "I've been in rugby ever since."